A reflection on International Women’s Day at IHE Delft

To honor women’s contributions to the field of water, Ain Contractor designed an exhibition portraying 32 accomplished women nominated by students and staff of the institute. Their portraits have been featured on a special wall of our institute, until now occupied only by men’s photos. Ain reflects on the process of putting this installation together and on how to continue the conversation that it elicited.

Exhibition at IHE Delft for International Women’s Day:
Celebrating diverse understandings of caring for water

Like many universities, IHE Delft too has a special wall in the institute dedicated to portraits of former rectors and Emeritus Professors, and like many universities, these positions have historically been occupied predominantly by men. Since I arrived at IHE as a masters student in 2020, I wondered about the portraits on this wall, what it means for the institute to have had exclusively male leadership since its inception, if and when this trend would shift, and what this indicated about the institute, the Netherlands, and the world of water. On being invited to design a women’s day activity by IHE Delft Communication Office, I proposed that we install portraits of noted women in water next to the existing portraits – almost as a joke – since I did not think that this would be allowed. To my pleasant surprise, the proposal was accepted by the management, and welcomed by several students and staff, all of whom expressed a sense of relief that they were not alone in their discomfort with the existing portrait collection.

I wrote an open call to staff and students inviting nominations of women they would like to see on the wall. While I thought it logical to include IHE Delft’s women professors and winners of alumni awards, I neither found it necessary for other nominees to be associated with IHE Delft, nor for them to hold high positions in institutions elsewhere. This is because engaging with water and its politics has taught me that while women and other marginalised groups have not historically held many positions of institutional power, they have indeed made significant contributions to its management, playing an important role in shaping how water is viewed, understood and governed. With this in mind, I invited nominations of whoever one looks up to, and asked nominators to describe their reasons for doing so.

Though many at IHE Delft agreed that this was a good initiative, they did not all have someone in mind to nominate – indicating the general lack of recognition given to women in water. As the world’s largest international graduate school for water studies, IHE Delft’s diverse student body and staff are its greatest strength. I hoped that the exhibition would reflect this diversity, pushing us to recognise contributions to water across divides of gender, race, and nationalities. Slowly, nominations began to trickle in forming the collection of 32 women in water, “Celebrating diverse understandings of caring for water“.

Here is the list of nominees, along with short descriptions provided by nominators and links to further explore their work.

Impromptu opening of the exhibition at IHE Delft

On the 8th of March, my fellow PhD student Celia Ramos Sánchez organised an opening for the exhibition to honor the selected women. In a small, informal and heart-warming gathering, students and staff shared stories of inspiration about the women they had nominated. While the visual of women’s portraits hung alongside those of IHE’s former rectors and Emeritus Professors was in itself powerful for its gender, race and regional diversity, working on this exhibition pushed me to reflect on the different, and even conflicting schools of thought represented by the women themselves.

Some nominations such as Maude Barlow and Nila Ardhiane were of water rights activists, advocating for the human right to water, and against water privatisation. On the other hand, those who made it to the list included women holding powerful ministerial positions, such as Nadhifa Kemikimba, IHE Alumna and Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Water in Tanzania, who is actively advocating for private finance in the water sector of her country.

Several nominations were of women who have mobilised communities to protect water sources from pollution and environmental degradation, such as Graciela González from Mexico, leading a grassroots movement to protect the Santiago River, Lois Marie Gibbs from the United States of America, mobilising to raise awareness about the dumping of hazardous waste in water bodies, Jhed Tamano and Jonila Castro from Philippines, young activists and frontline environmental defenders who were abducted allegedly by the Philippines military in September 2023 for their work with fishing communities affected by dredging and reclamation projects. On the other hand, I was impressed to find that an IHE Alumna, Dr. Heyddy Calderon Palma, had been appointed Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources of Nicaragua in 2022, where she faces a tremendous challenge as Nicaragua was voted the most dangerous country per capita for environmental defenders in 2020. While the list included the late Prof. Iris Frida Josh, IHE Alumna and National Director of Hydraulic Projects and Public Works for the Undersecretary of Water Resources in Argentina, who successfully completed 371 hydraulic projects during her tenure, it also included activist Medha Patkar, founding member of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, a people’s movement to resist the construction of a series of dams on the Narmada river in West India which would flood over 37,000 hectares of forests, farmlands and commons of indigenous tribal groups.

Struck by these contradictions, I look back on my intention behind this activity, which was also undertaken by other groups and organisations working with water on the occasion of International Women’s Day. Through this exhibition, I had wished to highlight the diversity in water knowledges, concerns and sensibilities existing within our institute, in the hope of foregrounding marginalised voices that offer potential alternatives to dominant, largely techno-managerial and extractive modes of understanding and organising water, as well as human relationships with water. Celebrating women in water offers a way to do this, as women’s voices continue to remain under-represented, particularly when advocating for water justice. This is clear from the case of the women of Cochabamba’s “Water War”, who had to struggle against water privatisation to achieve their irrigation rights, and from the case of the women fishers of Ennore-Pulicat wetlands who are fighting corporate power to protect the coastal ecologies their livelihoods depend on from industrial pollution and encroachments. However, these are not the perspectives that are given institutional recognition, status or power.

Hallway of IHE Delft

Two weeks after International Women’s Day, the exhibition still hangs on the walls of IHE Delft, having achieved some success in generating discussions about women in water. The institute’s management has cleared space on the walls that previously only adorned portraits of men. As we wait for the portraits to be replaced, and if the intention of the institute is to add women to the collection, the questions remain:

Which portraits will be chosen from this exhibition and why?

Which ways of knowing water are celebrated, and which remain marginalised?

How can we shift our focus from mere representation to substantive structural change?

Belated Happy Women’s Day!

Special thanks to all who supported this initiative, particularly the hardworking Facilities and Repro staff; Sander Steenweg, Eric Pluim, Ed Gerritsen van der Hoop, and Ed van Iterson. Pictures by Bích Trần and Tavengwa Chitata.

Cite this blog post
Qurratul Ain Contractor (2024, March 28). A reflection on International Women’s Day at IHE Delft. FLOWs. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/w4gf

Qurratul Ain Contractor

PhD candidate, IHE Delft Institute for Water Education I am an architect and water governance scholar interested in the intersections of environment and society, and reimagining nature-society relations.

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